Three European consortia have won contracts to design a mission to Mars that should launch from Earth in 2009.
ExoMars would put a rover on the surface of the planet
The ExoMars probe will put a rover on the surface of the Red Planet to look for signs of current or past life.
The companies, from European Space Agency (Esa) member states and Canada, have been asked to investigate the technology required for the mission.
If the design work goes well and the funds are available, a consortium will then be told to start building ExoMars.
Humans on Mars
The industrial teams are headed by Alenia Spazio (Italy), Alcatel Space (France) and EADS Astrium (France).
ExoMars is part of Esa's Aurora programme which has set out objectives for exploring the Solar System in the decades ahead.
Scientists want a mission that would bring back Martian samples
The programme could eventually see humans go back to the Moon and even go to Mars, perhaps by 2030.
"This is an exciting landmark for the Aurora programme, since these are the first contracts dedicated to mission development rather than technical studies," said Bruno Gardini, Aurora Project Manager.
The European Space Agency also wants design studies done to show how Mars rocks and soil could be returned to Earth for analysis in a laboratory.
Esa would like to send a mission to the Red Planet to collect the geological samples in 2011.
Aurora may lead to a human mission to Mars
A major difficulty will be getting the specimens down to the surface of our planet without them being damaged in re-entry.
Consortia led by Surrey Satellite Technology Limited (UK) and EADS Launch Vehicles (France) will outline how to send a capsule into Earth orbit and then bring it down again - at speeds of up to 12.5 km/s - to test the technology that will be needed on the full-scale mission.
"It's a very difficult problem that is going to test us," said Andy Phipps from SSTL. "The purpose of the study is to develop a low-risk concept to bring the samples back.
"It would be a re-entry vehicle not unlike a very small unmanned Apollo-type capsule weighing perhaps 50 kilos," he told BBC News Online.
Europe already has a mission to Mars in transit. The Mars Express orbiter will arrive at the Red Planet later this year, when it will put the Beagle 2 lander on the surface.